We Are All Heretics; The Gnostic Gospels
Sunday Worship, Feb. 11, 2007
Ms. Alorie Parkhill and Rev. Katie Lee Crane
- Truth is as mysterious as God,
- and as sacred.
- It sustains and kills.
- It is always dangerous.
- Source unknown
There are a lot of stories about Jesus stories about what he said, what he believed, stories about his teaching and preaching and healing. Some of those stories are in the Christian Bible. And, some, are not. Some might not be there because they were very similar to the stories that ARE in the Bible. Perhaps some were lost before they made the Bible. But some stories are not in the Bible because they described things that Jesus supposedly thought and taught that certain early Christians didn’t believe. In fact, after Jesus died, his followers argued a lot among themselves about which stories should be included in the Bible and which ones should not. Everyone wanted the stories they believed to be the ones that defined the Church they were starting in Jesus’ name. They had a meeting. Everyone argued for what they believed. But only some stories were chosen. Others were destroyed. Some were lost forever. A few have recently been found. Reading the stories that weren’t chosen for the bible causes us to wonder: which stories are true?
UNISON CHALICE LIGHTING
We light this chalice to rekindle our flame of truth.
We light this chalice to replenish our spirit of love.
We light this chalice to rededicate our energy of action.
May the light which is before us
nurture and sustain the light which is within us.
- Rev. Makanah Morris
READING Meet Some of My Favorite Heretics, Rev. Katie Lee Crane
I know some Unitarian Universalists who revel in the idea that we are heretics. But I’m here to tell you that my spine used to bristle when I heard that word. You see, like some of you, I grew up in a religious tradition where questions and dissent were discouraged. We were taught doctrine and dogma and practices that had been codified long ago and then refined over centuries by scholars and other leaders seeking to make those ideas and practices easier for the rest of us to understand and follow. Heresy, as I understood it, was an opinion contrary to the truth.
So imagine my surprise when I learned not too long ago that the word “heresy” derives from the late Greek, hairesis, meaning “to choose” or the “act of choosing.” Originally, the word we know as “heresy” was a neutral term indicating a point of view.
One might say that the intense debating among Christian believers in the first several centuries following Jesus’ death, was a struggle to determine which point of view would be chosen as the “official” or orthodox point of view. It was a free-for-all, everybody trying to define their own socio-political borders and seeking to create secure in-group identities. Dozens argued, for example, about the nature of Jesus. Was he God? Was he merely an exemplary human? Was he part of a three-in-one God in which all aspects of God were equal? Was he “made” by God and not “of one substance with the father?”
Let me introduce three of the early Christians whose points of view didn’t make the official cut.
Valentinus was an early Christian theologian who became famous for his Gnostic point of view. Alorie will tell you more about this later this morning. Born in 100 C.E. and educated in Alexandria, Egypt, Valentinus later went to Rome to preach and teach. His ideas, influenced by Platonic concepts, were briefly the mainstream Christian point of view. Born as soon as he was following Jesus’ death, Valentinus believed himself to have a special apostolic sanction through Theudas, a disciple and initiate of Paul of Taursus. He claimed that he was among those entrusted with certain esoteric truths and was, in fact, called to be a custodian of doctrines and rituals which, he believed, should become foundational to Christianity. He is credited with writing the Gospel of Truth, one of the non-canonical texts that have only recently come to our attention.
Eighty-five years after Valentinus’ birth, Origen was born, also in Alexandria. His was one of the first intellectual attempts to define Christianity. In an effort to refute what he saw as Gnosticism’s determinism, Origen argued for free will, that is, the full freedom of individual minds to turn to or from God’s word.
One of his most famous documents, “On First Principles,” outlined his doctrine of the “restoration of all souls.” Borrowing from the Greek Stoics, Origen argued that, eventually, all souls would be restored to a state of dynamic perfection and dwell with God. This point of view, called apokatastasis [a pock a tas ta sis] most likely evolved from Origen’s intellectual heritage that included the Greek cosmology, plus Jewish and early Christian teachings.
While Gnosticism flourished, Origen’s systematic theology was debunked by those who claimed they did not need reasoned and intellectual “proofs;” they relied on their own unmediated experience of the divine. There was a time, however, when Origen’s point of view and certainly his scholarship was in such favor that he was named “Father of the Church.” He fell from favor ironically not over a point of theology, but over a power struggle and he was banished from Alexandria. He settled in Caesarea in Palestine but later came under fire there, too. He was eventually imprisoned and tortured. He died soon thereafter, probably as a result of his treatment in prison.
Origen’s heresies included an understanding of free will, and a denial of an eternal hell where some souls could never be restored to God’s love. Origen’s idea about restoration of souls has surfaced again and again throughout history: with the Renaissance Humanists, for example, later with existentialist Christians and, still later, with our own Universalist forebears who believed in universal salvation that a gracious God would not condemn souls to eternal damnation; all souls would eventually be saved.
Alexandria was clearly a hotbed because it was there, too, that Arius was born sometime around 250 C.E. He struggled with the emerging view of the trinity and argued that, there were three but the three were not equal. Jesus and the Holy Spirit were both different in essence from and subordinate to the Father. Jesus was a human creature, related to God as one elevated through obedience to God’s will. It was, at its core, a question of whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, or not. Heady stuff. But to the adherents of various perspectives, critical to an understanding of Christianity as they perceived it.
All three of these now-called “heretics” lived during a time of great ferment in the early Christian Church. Bitter battles. Years of theological debates and personal power struggles. Arius lived to argue his point of view at the famous Council of Nicea in 325 which adopted the Nicene Creed which is the foundational creedal statement of Christians today. During the great debate when the Church Fathers attempted to create this creedal statement, one option on the table favored the Arian point of view. It was rejected, however, in favor of the part of the Nicene Creed that many of us know by heart:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, lig
ht from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
Only three voted against this version of the creed; Arius was one of them. All three were exiled.
Today’s Unitarian traditions which grow from 16th century Transylvanian Unitarianism and began to flourish in this country in the 19th century are actually rooted in the much earlier “heresy” of Arius whose point of view was the loser at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.
READING selections from The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel According to Thomas consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, some familiar, some not. Here are just a few excerpts :
Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you, “See the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty. (3)
Jesus said to his disciples: “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.”
Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom
you are like.”
Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated
from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.”
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things.
When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus tell you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up
stones and throw them at me, a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” (13)
Jesus said, “It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries. Do not let your left (hand) know what your right (hand) is doing.” (62)
Of the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, we have only a fragment, and that, not the original, but a Coptic translation of the original. One scholar, Karen King, claims this gospel is radical in at least two ways: first, it presents Mary of Magdala as one of the early leaders among Jesus’ followers and second, it suggests an interpretation of Jesus’ teachings that is radically different from the one that is most familiar. She claims Jesus teaches a way to inner spiritual knowledge. She appears to rejects Jesus’ suffering and death as the path to eternal life.
The first six pages are lost, so the gospel begins with a scene, set after the resurrection, in which Jesus and his disciples are in the midst of a discussion about the end of the world and the nature of sin. Jesus concludes the teaching with a warning against those who would delude the disciples into following one particular leader or one set of rules and laws. Instead, he says, they are to seek the child of true Humanity within themselves and gain inward peace. Then he commissions them to preach his gospel and leaves.
This is where I pick up a bit of the narrative of the Gospel of Mary of Magdala:
But they were distressed and wept greatly. “How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the child of true Humanity?” they said. “If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”
Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.”
When Mary had said these things, she turned their heart [to]ward the Good, and they began to deba[t]e about the wor[d]s of [the Savior].
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.”
Mary responded, “I will teach you about what is hidden from you.”
And she began to teach them what she knew.
Later in the gospel, however, things are not as harmonious. Andrew complains about Mary’s teachings.
“Say what you will about the things she has said, but I do not believe the S[a]vior said these things, f[or] indeed these teachings are strange ideas.”
Peter responded, bringing up similar concerns. …”Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?
Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what are you imagining? Do you think that I have thought up these things by myself in my heart or that I am telling lies about the Savior?
Levi answered, speaking to Peter, “Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the Adversaries. For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.”
SERMON We Are All Heretics, Alorie Parkhill
When I first heard about the Gnostic Gospels, I was fascinated; they sounded like a kind of forbidden fruit in early Christianity. Evidently, these writings had been suppressed as heretical by the church fathers. To me, a fifth generation UU on the maternal side, and a devout skeptic, that made these potential revolutionaries worthy of investigation.
In my youth, I had relished arguing with my Methodist and Episcopalian friends, and especially their earnest youth group leaders, about such things as whether Jesus was actually “God” (as I looked up at the unlikely blond, blue-eyed images of him all around). Such discourse has always intrigued me, though I didn’t necessarily know much about the subject at the time. I did love to argue. Maybe, I thought, in my adult incarnation, the Gnostics (loosely meaning wisdom or insight in Greek) possessed some special truth so hereticaland dangerous— that it had to be suppressed by the early official Christian church. How utterly delicious!
So I explored further. After reading Elaine Pagels, the most popularly known scholar on the Gnostics, I was more intrigued. Pagels writes that these splinter sects were first investigated by their orthodox contemporaries who were “attempting to prove that Gnosticism was essentially non-Christian. They traced its origins to Greek philosophy, astrology, mystery religions, magic and even Indian sources.” Those Eastern thinkers must have seemed especially dangerous in their acceptance of multiple gods and the oneness of all divinity, a bizarre notion evidently.
We all know that history is written by the winners, and it seems that one of the many splinter groups who followed Jesus eventually came to preeminence. Pagels points out that “orthodox Christians, by the late second century, had begun to establish ‘objective criteria’ for church membership. Whoever confessed the creed, accepted the ritual of baptism [by the correct bishop], participated in worship, and obeyed the clergy was accepted as a fellow Christian.” (p. 104). The official church was the hierarchy, and the accepted gospels of the New Testament reflected the only truth. All other groups, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, said were “false persons, evil seducers and hypocrites.”
As a feminist, I was also intrigued by what seemed like a more accepting Gnostic attitude toward wom
en than that presented in the patriarchal Old and New Testaments. In her chapter, “God the Father/God the Mother,” Pagels suggests that some of the texts “speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements.” (p. 49) We know that many of the older religions described virgin births as a reflection of a particular kind of female spirituality, not necessarily sexual purity. Perhaps these small, multi-faceted, and now condemned groups of Gnostics had merged elements of both the old and new religions? Certainly the Christian authorities would have none of this extremism and managed to eliminate most feminine imagery from their texts. Nonetheless, “the virgin” Mary still achieved a kind of mother goddess stature among the folk, despite the self-proclaimed authorities. In statues, this new goddess, Mary, even looked remarkably like the Egyptian goddess Isis, holding her baby, Horus.
In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdelene), there is a brief suggestion that Jesus and Mary had been exceptionally closehe kissed her on the lips, and who knows what else happened? In the Gospel of Thomas the apostles expressed jealousy of her relationship with Jesus. After the crucifixion, the apostles ask Mary what Jesus had told her in secret. Peter rages, saying “Did he prefer her to us?” leading to a profound argument about whether women had any authority at all. In a previous context, Jesus had said “whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.” Did Jesus impart some kind of esoteric knowledge to Mary? We are reminded of the dangerous forbidden knowledge of good and evil that so threatened the god who walked in the Garden of Eden, especially knowledge in the hands of a woman!
The Christian degradation of women has much to do with the power of sexuality. Ancient epics, such as the Sumerian Gilgamesh and the Celtic Cuchulainn, affirm and accept female sexuality, despite their profoundly patriarchal cultures. With the writing of the second version of Adam and Eve in Genesis, however, negative attitudes became codified. And we are still living today with a Judeo-Christian Puritanism that shapes every aspect of our culture.
The more I read, however, the more criticism of Pagels emerged. A Christian herself, she was accused of sympathizing with the Gnostics against the early church authorities. Did contemporary theologians consider this a kind of heresy too? Her critics claim that she over-emphasized the equality of women with men since one gospel stated: “Every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” What a generous offer! John Dart in The Laughing Savior counters with the idea that “to become a male is standard (albeit chauvinistic) language of the Hellenistic world for becoming pure, spiritual.”
According to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said to his disciples, “There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is in darkness.” Ah! Is there a suggestion of god within us perhaps, not external and other? (p. 120). That could certainly be considered heretical in the face of the dominant monotheistic otherness.
We actually know more about the Gnostics from its detractors than from the people who practiced their faith. Bishop Irenaeus had much to say about their heresies. He seemed absolutely certain about the Truth with a capital T. (121) There was to be no salvation outside the church, period. John Dart writes that “Christianity tended to drive toward doctrinal unity while Gnostic thinkers apparently preferred their independent ways. They seemed to seek and incorporate into their systems any bit of ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’ they found, regardless of the source.” Pagels writes that some of the Gnostics believed that “truth had to be clothed in symbols.” Who interpreted these symbols was always at issue. Was it the “true” Christian fathers or the individual exploring human experience? We know who won. Eventually, many people suffered for their unbelief or their difference of belief once the canon was established. Undoubtedly, many of us would have been burned at the stake in those days.
Well, maybe the Gnostics weren’t that important in the great scheme of things, just small groups of individuals seeking the light. Some scholars believe that there was actually no unified Gnosticism at all. Michael Williams in Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’ suggests it “has been seen variously as a protest movement that overturned traditional values and textual interpretations; a religion of innovators who adopted and adapted ideas from other religions; a religion of spiritualists who despised the body and the life of the body; and a movement of ethical extremists who opted for either an ascetic or a libertine way of life.” Take your pick. But these small groups of religious folk had their own perspective on Jesus and on spirituality. Were their writings any less valid than the now canonized gospels? Haven’t all religious movements actually been protests against the previously established “truths,” including early Christianity?
And therein lies the fundamental question, of courseWhat IS the truth? Can we know it for sure? Who has the authority to tell me or you what to believe?
All of these issues led me back to one of my favorite topicsmythology. I have read it and taught it for many years, and what I teach centers around the truth within the stories, not so much the stories themselves. The details of who did what, when, or which god or goddess held sway matter so much less than what the ancient tales from everywhere on earth reveal to us about our universal humanity. We are all born, we experience joy, loss, beauty, painand we all die. These are human truths which every great myth portrays. Why then? Who is responsible? As my five-year-old granddaughter once asked me, where was I before I was me? She hasn’t yet asked what will I be when I’m not me anymore, but I can see that one coming. I don’t have answers for her. I just know that we ARE, at least for now, and that there is something innately divine in each of us that lasts well beyond these fragile bodies. Perhaps this is a Gnostic way of knowing, deeply personal and experiential, as well as a Unitarian-Universalist way.
John Dart writes of Nietzsche who “chafed” under the monotheistic ideal of Western civilization Judeo-Christian heritage and ridiculed the hold it had on creative thinking.” He said. “‘Monotheism, the rigid consequence of the doctrine of one normal human beingconsequently the belief in a normal God, beside whom there are only false, spurious Gods—has perhaps been the greatest danger of mankind in the past. In polytheism man’s free-thinking and many-sided thinking has a prototype set up: the power to create for himself in new and individual ways, always newer and more individualized.” Joseph Campbell demonstrated this idea in The Power of Myth. He said: “One problem with Yahweh, as they used to say in the old Christian Gnostic texts, is that he forgot he was a metaphor. He thought he was a fact. And when he said,’ I am God,’ a voice was heard to say, ‘You are mistaken, Samael.’ Samael means blind god: blind to the infinite Light of which he is a local historical manifestation. This is known as the blasphemy of Jehovah—that he thought he was God.”
Monotheistic or polytheistic or non-theistic, it’s all in the metaphor. Jesus taught in parables. Ancient cultures taught in stories and rituals. Did Gilgamesh actually go to a Sumerian Noah to find the secret of immortality? Did Demeter lose her daughter to the underworld for six months of the year? Did the Norse Sigurd slay a dragon and eat its heart to learn the secrets only the animals knew? Were the floods, deaths and rebirths, hero monomyths in every culture, literal? I don’t think so, and I don’t believe that’s what matters. Campbell says “Every religion is true one
way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
Then what of the heretical Gnostics? I appreciate that these groups existed and struggled with the same human questions we all wrestle with. Who can say for certain what Jesus meant, but some of his teachings make sense to me, certainly not all. I delight in his apparent acceptance of women beyond what his culture found tenable. Another teaching, simply put, to love yourself so that you are actually able to love others, is far from an anemic concept. It’s a truly difficult and essential challenge for all of us, like forgiving the unforgivable. In Matthew, verse 34, he is quoted as saying, “Be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for today.” Many great sages have spoken similarly. I honor and wish to emulate them, difficult as that is. Again, Jesus taught, don’t criticize others when you are equally vulnerable. Take care of children. I can’t argue with that one. Do not kill or bear false witness. He was a fine teller of stories, like the bards, the skalds and the scops before him.
Death and resurrection (or rebirth), which seems so central to Christian belief, feel very much to me like the old dying and reviving gods. Our Pagan ancestors speak to us of fertility, and the cycle of the seasons. As I watch the light return, and as I work the earth each new growing season, that image of dying and renewing becomes truth eternal, with a capital T. I miss the ancient respect for the earth in the teachings of Jesus, but I find it in other spiritual traditions, unfortunately not so much in our times. I believe, as every culture before us has, that we are all heroes and heroines on a road of trials from birth to death. We need help along the way, and we all have something to give back to the world. I don’t think this requires a belief in a god, especially a distant authority, though I do seek a godly (goddessly?) spirit in each of us, and in the natural world.
If I am a heretic because I pick and choose among spiritualities, then I join a venerable crowd, as do you. We UUs are often criticized for having no beliefs because we lack a creed. I am deeply grateful that we eschew absolutes, but that we do keep struggling to find common ground in all our differences. We are seekers, not an easy path, and we don’t take things on faith. It is much simpler to be given directions by a higher authority. Certainty comforts. Our way is to choose our way— to question things, to probe, to doubt, to wrestle with the unanswerable. When Gilgamesh finally recognized that he could not achieve immortality, no matter how ferociously he attacked the challenge, he went back to his people to lead them wisely until his death. As devout heretics, we try to listen to the metaphors in all the great stories and seek the kernels of truth. That may seem a dangerous path because mostly we cannot know truth with a capital T, except in the Gnostic way of knowing. If to choose is heresy, then we are united in our heresy.
What are your stories then? What poetic language whispers in your ear of the greatest stories ever toldour human stories? Truth then, I believe, is being able to hear the idea behind the image and then living our lives in accord with what we learn, both from words and from this precious world.
As Iris Murdoch’s character Father Bernard, in The Philosopher’s Pupil says:
For what is real and true look at these stones, this bread, the spring of water, those sea waves, this horizon with its pure untroubled line. Only perceive purely and the spiritual and the material world vibrate as one. The power that saves is infinitely simple and infinitely close at hand. (The Spiritual Journey, by Anne Bancroft)
CLOSING WORDS Blessed Are the Pure In Heart by Rosalie Dunlap Boyle (from Lower Than the Angels)
There are no answers, yet some have known
Of incommunicable certainties.
A sudden angel rolled away the stone,
And they were beaten speechless to their knees.
They went thereafter up and down the land
With words like poniards, deadly bright and keen,
To dazzle hearts and straightway pierce them through.
Those who were stricken came to understand
A portion of the truth they had not seen,
Sternly believing what their prophets knew.
Others deal in questions and there are
No certain answers, although some have seen
The dustmotes whirl on every dimming star,
And the black winds of chaos blow between.
Unarmoured by their brief mortality,
They are the blessed wise who to the end
Behold no visions in their holy place,
And yet believe what they will never see.
Only the pure in heart can apprehend
The light—the light behind their God’s dark face.